Monday 29 January 2024

Bittersweet Ballads

Children playing amidst the rubble of damaged buildings in a camp for Palestinian refugees

By Martin Cohen

Palestine Wail and Other Bittersweet Ballads is a collection of poems by Yahia Lababidi. Yahia, as he recalls, has a personal connection to the conflict in Palestine, because his grandmother, Rabiha Dajani, was, seventy-five years ago, forced to flee her ancestral home in Palestine at gunpoint. She went on to become a remarkable educator, activist and social worker.

The collection starts with an apt quotation. Mahmoud Darwish’s aphorism that:
«Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.»

These are poems like ‘We Were Playing with the Clouds’ by the Palestinian artist and activist, Ghassan Kanafani (1936 – 1972), which runs:

I wish children didn’t die.
I wish they would be temporarily elevated
to the skies until the war ends.

Then they would return home safe,
And when their parents would ask them,
where were you? They would say,
we were playing in the clouds.

Yahia himself writes, by way of an introduction to the collection:

‘The death of one child, due to natural causes, is nearly unbearable. The systematic, cold-blooded murder of thousands of innocent children, in the name of so-called ‘self-defense’, is an unjustifiable moral obscenity. Yet, this is what the Israeli government continues to do and it is appalling that there remain democratic nations as well as civilized individuals who find it difficult to unequivocally condemn such depravity and call for a ceasefire. Who will honor these blameless, anonymous martyrs? How can we remain silent in the face of such atrocities?’

‘Words matter, since narratives shape realities and, in turn, how history is told and who is deemed worthy of our sympathies. That’s why artists are deemed dangerous, for daring to speak truth to power. It is, especially, significant for example that since October 7th, more than 70 Palestinian journalists have been killed, in Gaza, in the line of duty while Israel has murdered at least thirteen Palestinian poets and writers in Gaza.’

‘Our understanding of the human condition is diminished without the emotionally imaginative and spiritually-enriching witness of storytellers and artists. We know from watching the news that narratives are grossly distorted when high-jacked by corrupt politicians and compromised media. As a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Malcom X, succinctly put it: “If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’

As a case in point, just over a month ago, young Palestinian poet, scholar and activist, Dr Refaat Alareer, was assassinated by a targeted Israeli airstrike, along with his brother, sister and her four children. Anticipating his own death, Alareer shared this heart-rending poem, just one month prior to his murder by Israeli forces:

If I must die
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze–
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself–
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love

If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale.

But this is a collection of new poetry by Yahia Lababidi so let us include now this one – by way of a taster. The reader is sincerely encouraged to seek out the rest in the collection.

The Light-keepers

Hope is a lighthouse

(or, at least, a lamppost) 

someone must keep vigil

to illumine this possibility

In the dark, a poet will climb 

narrow, unsteady stairs

to gaze past crashing waves 

and sing to us new horizons

Others, less far-sighted, might 

be deceived by the encroaching night

mistake the black for lasting, but 

not those entrusted with trimming wicks

Their tasks are more pressing —

winding clockworks, replenishing oil –

there is no time for despair

when tending to the Light.

Commenting on the collection, James Crews, author of Unlocking the Heart: Writing for Mindfulness, Creativity, and Self-Compassion, writes: 

‘These are necessary and truthful poems. Yahia Lababidi powerfully illuminates this heartbreaking time and terrible season in the history of our world. This book, like a lantern in darkness, brings to light the truth of lives we must learn to honor and remember.’

And do check out Yahia’s YouTube channel where he regularly includes readings of his poems.

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